The (scattered) terrorist empire

The recent succession of terrorist attacks upsetting what was once known as the first world, most notably the onset against the headquarters of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the dramatic hostage taking in Ottawa, have substantially turned the public eye’s spotlight on the extremist threat in the West. It happened in a manner comparable to the more lethal and vivid massacre of the Twin Towers, whose sad exceptionality, however, still makes it an unprecedented occurrence.

The imposition of the self-styled Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or Da’ish, using its Arabic acronym, as an alleged catalyst of the jihadist galaxy must not mislead, as the extremist circles of radical Islam have very few points in common except for the evergreen fight against the heterogeneous category of those deemed apostates.

First, should be debunked the as persistent as simplistic myth that this ‘war on terror’ is being fought between a civilized West and a wider Islamic community, a belief that is somewhat rooted in Europe’s ultra-nationalist right-wing parties. From an etymological point of view, using the term ‘Islamic community’ itself implies two serious errors: first, that the roughly 1.6 billion Muslims spread around the world all belong to a unique tradition; secondly, that they can be cataloged according to criteria that the former group of industrialized countries applies on the basis of its own, age-old culture.

Map of the Caliphate proposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [by Débora Cabral (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons]

Self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri), in the wake of the resounding success achieved by the group of which he is both spiritual and military guide in the Syrian-Iraqi chaos, had the acumen to launch a new terror brand which has been used by last-minute followers in Libya and Tunisia (Ansar al-Sharia), central Africa (Boko Haram), Philippines (BIFF), Southeast Asia (Jemaah Islamiah), the Gaza Strip (Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen), and Uzbekistan (IMU), as well as numerous individuals in the Russian Caucasus and elsewhere in the world.

Territorial control of the ISIS [by NordNordWest, Spesh531, via Wikimedia Commons]

Unlike the days of al-Qaeda, when Osama bin Laden’s main target was the ‘Satan in stars and stripes’ and there wasn’t any particular territorial ambition, the foundation of a formally autonomous state in Siraq, in a seemingly anachronistic desire to repeat the medieval experience of the Islamic caliphate, has conferred both authority and world fame to ISIS, which can now count on a vast audience of virtual emulators, primarily, and affiliates, which is much broader than al-Qaeda‘s. However, although al-Baghdadi’s claims of invincibility, Da’ish has recently clashed against a reality of strenuous peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army, aided by the US-led international coalition. These factors have made the Salafi group de facto an ‘Armada vencible’, with unpredictable effects on the global impact of an inevitable backdown.

Al-Maliki, Nouri (2008)
Former Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki [by U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jessica J. Wilkes (DVIDS Archive), via Wikimedia Commons]

Despite ISIS’s effective media propaganda, the primary targets of jihadism are not Westerners, hit to a greatly lesser extent. In fact, first on Middle Eastern terrorists’ blacklist are a number of Sunnis, including the ambiguous Saudi monarchy, and Shiites, ça va sans dire (latest massacre against Shia mosques in Sanaa alone is sufficient testimony). The reason of this latter religious hatred is to be found in the bitter aversion against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which exerts a major influence on the countries of the area and has tacitly contributed to the discrimination of Sunnis in post-Saddam Iraq. Given the preliminary agreement on the Iranian nuclear energy which was recently reached in Lausanne by the P5+1 (including China, the U.S., France, the U.K., the Russian Federation, plus Germany) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, this hatred is likely to grow and climate could heat up further.

Then is another, smaller, rivalry within the Sunni camp between Riyadh and nearby Doha, guilty of being the main backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose attempt of political Islam was abruptly interrupted by Colonel el-Sisi in Egypt. Anyway, the fact that Qatar and Saudi Arabia have joined forces to stop Houthis’ advance in southern Yemen should not seem strange. It is, indeed, a normal exercise of realpolitik in an area of the world where, insofar as idealistic, one must always be ready to make a deal with the devil.

Yet another striking example of the framework’s complexity is evidenced by the lethal acrimony within the ranks of Salafism, one for all the conflict between the aforementioned IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, with the bloody civil war in Syria on the background. Though both groups are Sunni and committed to the removal of Shiite Alawite President Bashar al-Assad, the latter is a branch of al-Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is regarded by ISIS as a “traitor”. However, the status quo could suffer a considerable change if some rumors recently leaked by  the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat prove not baseless. In fact, according to Aimen Dean, a founder member of al-Qaeda and spy for Britain’s intelligence, the 64-year-old Egyptian lawyer is taking into serious consideration a dissolution of his network, thus leaving free choice to affiliated groups. If confirmed, this would herald either a tremendous terrorist coalition or a simple observation of reality, currently resizing al Qaeda to a secondary role globally.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau [by VOA (VOA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

A few miles to the west, jihadism takes an anti-government dimension in Central Africa, where Boko Haram has undertaken a bloody battle not only against the Goodluck Jonathan-led Nigerian government (and predictably against newly-elected President Muhammadu Buhari, too), but has also dared to extend its area of operations to neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The group’s hubris, however, has triggered a firm reaction on the part of the African Coalition forces, which are heavily downsizing Abubakar Shekau’s and his fellow soldiers’ ambitions, already responsible for numerous massacres against a mostly defenseless local population.

Differently from previous scenarios lies the West, part of the so-called Dar al-Harb, ie where the Muslim law (sharia) is not in force and never was (except Iberia’s al-Andalus). In much of the northern hemisphere the primary threat is thus posed by sporadic attacks by ‘lone wolves’, the fear of whom in Europe, along with a weak recovery from a devastating economic crisis, has the side effect of helping to worsen the already thin threshold of tolerance towards allogeneic elements.

U.S. Secretary John Kerry with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov [by U.S. Department of State from United States, via Wikimedia Commons]

However, in the wake of what was already experienced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this may turn out to be a unique opportunity to establish a new kind of relationship among nations which would be otherwise on a collision course. First of all, the Russian Federation, which realistically might have similar problems in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan. Furthermore, this could give rise to a closer cooperation with the People’s Republic of China, whose problems with extremist groups within the indigenous Uighur ethnic minority in the northeastern region of Xinjiang are there for all to see.

As already happened in the Middle East, where Iranians and Saudis have partially (and only in Syria and Iraq) buried their hatchets on the battlefield to fight Da’ish, so terrorism could hopefully backfire to its own proponents, providing a bit of lubricating oil for rusty relations among the world’s major powers.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. GM,
    Hello. Looking forward to your team’s upcoming writings. In this article there seems to be no mention of the massive natural resources (oil, natural gas) where terrorists, for some reason, seem to congregate. Could it be true that the whole story of terrorism relates to control and profit from those resources, and the distribution of the wealth, to either the people of the regions or a handful of elite billionaires?

    “As already happened in the Middle East, where Iranians and Saudis have partially (and only in Syria and Iraq) buried their hatchets on the battlefield to fight Da’ish,…”

    Being a person who’s very willing to admit having misperceptions of situations in search of the real truth, the statement from your last paragraph implies that the Saudis have taken effective actions in the war against ISIS. My (very possibly inaccurate) perception is that the Saudiis are one of the primary financial backers of ISIS, and have done nothing to slow or stop them. It seems the real source of contention leading to wars and violence and the current tragic situation in the Middle East is how the resource wealth becomescontrolled and distributed – once again, evenly amongst the people or unequally to a handful of billionaires.

    Best regards,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. GM says:

      Hi, Jerry.

      Thanks for your comment, I hope to receive plenty of them in the future.

      I think you’re right when you stress the importance of the control of natural resources and, I would add, several illegal activities (by the way, I’ve remarked this on my latest article about the current situation in Libya).
      You’re right again when you point out that the Saudi monarchy, as well as other countries of the region which need a big external threat in order to unite the public eye and conceal internal deficiencies, has behaved ambiguously towards Daish.

      However, it seems to me that the extremist creature funded by the Gulf monarchies has turned out to play into their own hands. Not surprisingly, the Saudi mobilization, not only in defense of their borders but also through a number of air strikes on some ISIL-held territories in Syria, has been quite massive.

      In my view, religious extremism is only the cover of a more important power struggle linked to criminal trafficking.

      Best regards,


      1. Gennaro,

        In my view, religious extremism is only the cover of a more important power struggle linked to criminal trafficking.

        After reading that last sentence in your response, my first thought was “ok, criminal trafficking, power struggle, more important than the cover of religious extremism…”. Trafficking arms, stolen oil, and/or, referrring to the at-sea deaths of war refugees in the Mediterranean, people? I guess what I’m looking for, as there is a distinction between the word “more” and “most”, and because it seems beneficial for understanding the truth to get right to the heart of matters, is your or members of your team’s perception of the MOST important power struggle in the MENA (Middle East-North Africa) region of the Earth.
        Thanks, again.


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